How does financial aid affect the classism climate on campuses?

Log on to any college or university website today, and you are almost guaranteed to find a whole section dedicated to convincing prospective students that a higher education is affordable. Financial aid has established its place firmly on the laundry list of “what a college should have,” and for good reasons, too. However, has it become an unintentional vehicle of classist behavior on college campuses?

As an international student who could not have afforded a college education in the U.S. without financial aid, I strongly believe in the merits of financial aid systems. Beyond my gratitude for a chance to study in an excellent institution, my faith in the financial aid system can also be attributed to the underlying value attached to the financial aid system – no one should have to be deprived of a higher education because of financial reasons. This underlying value effectively enables financial aid to mitigate the effects of class inequality in the short run as people belonging to the lower classes can now afford the same education as people from the higher classes. Relatively more equal education attainment across the classes may even erode class inequality in the long run. However, as class inequality issues are never simplistic, financial aid has its fair share of drawbacks.

The term “financial aid” is itself a constant reminder that class inequality exists.

By virtue of its definition, financial aid draws attention to the inability of its beneficiaries to pay for college education without assistance. Given the pre-existing classist mindset in many communities, it is therefore unsurprising that there is stigma of varying degrees attached to students on financial aid (FA students), especially those who have to pay half or less of the full amount. Some FA students feel uncomfortable disclosing information about their financial aid package for fear of receiving backlash from people who are paying a lot more for college and being associated with negative terms such as “freeloader.” Stigmatized treatments range in severity from dropping casual jabs like “you pay so little for college anyway” to voicing more bitter sentiments like “you are getting a ‘free ride’, so you don’t have the right to complain.” I am fortunate enough to only have had to deal with jabs – although they did make me uncomfortable – and not outright classist actions on my campus, but the same cannot be said about all colleges.  Of course, I find it entirely ironic that people who discriminate against FA students often cite “unfairness” as a reason, while completely overlooking or ignoring the innate disadvantages of belonging to a lower financial class.

While I am disgusted by classism against FA students, I am also saddened by an incident I witnessed 2 weeks ago that stank of “reverse classism”. A student, presumably on financial aid, complained on a public forum-like blog about a textbook being checked out from the library by “some b*tch.” Just another day in an angry college student’s life, right? The complaint quickly became very wrong when the student added, “… and I bet she [referring to the student who checked out the textbook] isn’t even on financial aid.” As if to drive home her point, the student left a p.s. saying “buy your godd*mn books 1%ers”.

In this specific case, it is quite difficult to argue that the student did not behave in a reverse classist manner. Firstly, it is already apparent from the student’s tone and choice diction that she adopted a rather hostile behavior towards the other student. Secondly, the way she immediately proposed the idea of the other student not receiving financial aid, as well as her follow-up assumption that the other student belongs to the “1%”, is very indicative of her dislike towards non-financial aid students and people belonging to the upper class in general. Thirdly, the other student’s financial status is in fact completely unrelated to the availability of a library textbook to the student in question. Therefore, the combination of hostility, usage of the derogatory term “b*tch”, and the out-of-place mention of the other student’s financial class convinced me that this is an isolated case of reverse classism, whereby the student in question discriminated the other student based on nothing but mere speculations on the other student’s financial class.

The financial aid system is akin to a double-edged sword with regards to issues of class inequality. On one end, it can serve as a useful societal tool in conquering class inequality, but on the other end, because it segregates the student body according to their financial class, it has the potential to incite classism behaviors amongst students. However, it would be absurd to give up the benefits of financial aid in an attempt to quell pre-existing classist behaviors because that would merely be suppressing the problem instead of solving it. Therefore, the more reasonable course of action, as with conquering other forms of discriminatory behavior, is relentless education. It may not produce lightning-quick results, but I believe that education is the complementary tool needed to maximize the potential of financial aid in fighting classism in the long run.


Yeewon Nyon is currently a Sophomore at Smith College, majoring in Sociology and Economics. A Malaysian by birth but a global citizen at heart, she is also an avid foodie and blogger. She regularly shares her thoughts and analyses on people and happenings on her Sociology blog, SocioRAWgy (

2 Responses

  1. Jane

    I’m very interested in how first-generation students afford college, especially at terrific places like Smith, so was glad to read on their website that they do claim to meet 100% of the need to attend. I’ve been reading that other places are backing off of these sorts of promises, and even stepping up efforts to recruit full-pay students who will “cost” the campus less. I was also surprised to see that 62% of Smith students do get grants or scholarship aid, but know that that can be deceptive if those figures include merit (rather than needs based) scholarships.

    At state schools, with tuition rising so quickly as state support diminishes, I’ve see very healthy and open conversation about college affordability, and students organizing very openly to lobby the legislature about the impossibility of affording college without increased financial aid. On my campus, almost all students work, and many long-long hours. I’d love for some of my students who *are* paying for their own education (and will be paying off their loans for years) have the chance to talk to students going to Smith on their parents’ dime about exactly who and who is not “Paying so little”. It can be so easy to live in one’s own bubble.

  2. Andy

    I’d like to argue the author’s statement about ‘reverse classism’. Classism, like racism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism and more, is chronically socialized and institutionalized. Classism refers to the systemic oppression of people of a lower social class. When a person feels that they have been marginalized by a society that is structured to exploit them, I would not categorize a response such as this one as ‘classist against wealthy people.’ Considering the fact that the student did not interact with the weathly student who checked out the book, I wouldn’t even use the word discrimination. I suggest that the author of this article check her vocabulary, check her privilege, and stop silencing the voices of students who have every right to be angry in an institution that marginalizes them in some of the ways that she mention in other parts of her article.

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